The chief sculptor was hard at work on a wall relief at the Temple of Hatshepsut, a religious site on the west bank of the Nile dedicated to the woman pharaoh who ruled Egypt from 1473 to 1458 B.C.E. He glanced over at the apprentice working next to him, shook his head and sighed. The master was going to have to do some touch-up work.
Though imagined, this scenario reflects the reality detailed by Anastasiia Stupko-Lubczynska, a researcher at the University of Warsaw’s Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology, in the journal Antiquity. As Andrew Curry reports for Science magazine, the new study sheds light on oft-overlooked members of ancient Egyptian society, suggesting that artisans of different ability levels collaborated to produce the temple’s art.
Stupko-Lubczynska and her colleagues focused their analysis on two reliefs in the huge mortuary temple, which stands in the Dayr al-Baḥrī complex in Thebes. Per ARTnews’ Jesse Holth, the 40-foot-long scenes appear on the walls of the temple’s Chapel of Hatshepsut. Mirror images of each other, they feature 200 nearly identical figures bearing offerings for the pharaoh, including sheaves of wheat and baskets of birds.
By closely examining the reliefs, the team found numerous discrepancies in artistic styles. Chisel marks seen on the walls show where corrections were made, suggesting that master artisans worked side by side with apprentices learning the trade.
“Because we have so many figures with repetitive details, we can compare the details and workmanship,” Stupko-Lubczynska tells Science. “If you look at enough of them, it’s easy to see when someone was doing it properly.”
While most of the figures follow a similar design, others exhibit distinct differences. Some legs and torsos have messy chiseled edges. Wigs seen in the carvings also vary in quality: “The most accomplished sculptors created a single curl with three deft hammer strokes,” writes Rhys Blakely for the London Times. Apprentices, however, required numerous chisel strikes.
“One of these wigs, mostly done by a master and only partly by a student, demonstrates a virtuosity that is not met elsewhere, in a sense [saying], ‘Look how you have to do this!’ even though it was rather impossible for a beginner to achieve that level,” Stupko-Lubczynska tells Garry Shaw of the Art Newspaper.
Working at the temple from 2006 to 2013, the researchers spent hundreds of hours copying the designs onto sheets of plastic film, carefully tracing each artwork while perched on scaffolding.
“I couldn’t stop thinking [that] our documentation team was replicating the actions of those who created these images 3,500 years ago,” says Stupko-Lubczynska in a statement. “Like us, ancient sculptors sat on scaffolding, chatting and working together.”
Egyptian craftspeople followed a seven-step process when creating reliefs. According to ARTnews, they divided walls into square grids to accurately transfer preliminary sketches with red and black paint, then chiseled the images into the limestone. Work was checked and corrected by a master artisan before being whitewashed and colored.
Because each stage essentially erased the one that preceded it, finished reliefs typically offer few traces of individual steps in the artistic process. As Andrew Califf reports for Haaretz, however, Stupko-Lubczynska found evidence of almost all of the steps—including remnants of a square grid—at the Temple of Hatshepsut.
The details and chisel patterns discovered by the team dispel previous notions that only trained artists worked on monumental architectural projects. Instead, the findings point toward a collaborative, on-the-job form of training.
“The artists who created all this really flew below the Egyptological radar,” Dimitri Laboury, an Egyptologist at the University of Liège who was not involved in the study, tells Science. “But those artists were key figures in a society which invested so much in artistic production.”